Part of the problem here is that a major transition is under way, one that is marked by other changes, such as digital transformation. But according to Accenture, a deeper transition is underway, one that affects every business, even if they think it doesn’t.
This is the move towards becoming post-digital - the point where we all stop pondering the wonders of the technology and how it works, and just get on with using it for our own specific purposes.
It is not an instant process of course. It is like the change that has occurred with automobiles. When I was young being able to set the points and change the plugs were the bare minimum skills needed to own and run a car. Now we just drive them – and soon we won’t even do that. We will just exploit the transport potential, for our own specific purposes.
Accenture has recently published a comprehensive survey and report on moving post digital - Are You Ready For What’s Next? – and I managed to sneak some time with Maynard Williams, a UK Managing Director, and global lead for Advanced Technology within Advanced Technology with Architecture to kick over some of the entrails of the report, especially the way that going post digital may affect businesses.
Going post digital
Part of the going post-digital idea is, of course, based on familiarity and innate understanding of the basics of the technology. As Williams points out, it was only a few years ago that businesses were setting up special little corners of their operation, often with a digital name, and now they are driving digital tools across the whole organisation with objectives such as making the whole supply chain much more nimble:
Part of the driver behind post-digital is that what was seen as different five years ago, and sort of expected a couple of years ago, has now become quite normal. And if you’re not at the point that you’re doing it then, as an enterprise, you now need to be quite concerned if you haven’t made that shift.
It is possible that the development of post-digital business operations and processes may become led by countries from the east, especially those where written communication is based around pictograms rather than alphabets. It has long been said that this changes the way people think, from a linear, sequential approach to a more rounded, whole picture model.
This can already be seen in the way China’s Alibaba operation is geared to allowing customers to specify cloud services as quantified business processes rather requiring users to translate their business requirements into technology specifications. Sometimes it does seem as though the western approach has been geared to making the use of IT more complex than it needs to be. Williams sees this as a factor which has to change, and is changing, with the growth of the post-digital mindset:
Are we making the consumer/customer experience more complex? I think there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve made a lot easier. I would argue that banking nowadays is an awful lot simpler. I used to have to go into a branch that shuts and half three in the afternoon and wasn’t open on the weekend. As a customer I can do all of my simple transaction stuff, all of the stuff that’s day-to-day, whenever I like, standing up, one handed, with the other hanging on to something on a bus. It probably makes me more impatient, and we’ve seen some good surveys to that effect, showing that people expect more because it’s becoming the norm.
Perhaps the key factor of the post digital era that we are entering is the changes it will bring to the way business is done, in both business-to-business and business-to-consumer terms. This will stem both from the external `consumer’ (ranging from individual member of the public through to business customer) through to the internal relationships between business managers and staff. And a key component of this will be the Millennial generation, those that have grown up with smartphones as the norm and the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Instagram as cornerstones of their everyday lives.
Williams sees the Amazon model of selling books, and then applying it to selling just about everything else, as one of the watersheds of the change:
It’s very interesting to see the way that some companies have grasped this and are creating a way in which they can be flexible but without tacking to-and-fro. Other companies are struggling, and you only have to look at the UK retail market. I wouldn’t say from an IT perspective that there’s wild divergence in what some of the big stores have been doing, but you look at the difference between John Lewis and Debenhams.
He sees the John Lewis approach as better thought through. It has set out to build an approach to doing business digitally that reflects the way its customers think, and has made the experience much more personal, and supportive.
Don’t get frantic, get smaller
One question that does hang over the early stages of post digital development is what might be termed 'franticisation' - making it clear to customers that the urgent need is for you to take some action, such as purchase something right now, just because the technology makes it possible.
Williams seems more to see this as part of a slightly different issue – the fact that most of the current leaders in applying digitalisation, especially in retail, are the 'big name' brands. He also sees this fundamental element changing however:
I think consumers are expecting more, and so the retailers who are able to give something that is a better targeted and more personalised experience are absolutely going to win. look at the swing of supermarkets buying up larger and larger areas and building megastores outside of towns, and then the swing back the other way, where what customers want is convenience. They don’t want to get in a car to drive to the outskirts of town. I think that helps with smaller niche brands.
I think you’re seeing sportswear brands that are really quite small, but very targeted. Yes, we’ll see more of those, and if they’re clever about being able to understand the customer and therefore carve out a niche where they respond well, then absolutely that creates the proposition. The world we’re now in is increasingly about using data well, not in bulk.
That observation inevitably leads to augmented/artificial intelligence. For Williams there are now plenty of examples of how using cloud allows businesses to work over the top of very large datasets to add real, significant value. But that does tend to work best in tightly defined areas, such as the analysis of medical records to help individual diagnosis or the development of accurately-targeted drugs. It works less well on large volumes of mixed data, as typically found with businesses like Amazon.
The breadth of Amazon’s business means that one individual can, as Williams said about himself, buy books for work, stuff for the children, gifts for a spouse, and follow a personal interest such as buying military history books. In such situations Amazon still has a hard time guessing what to serve up as anyone’s next recommendation:
AI is a very powerful tool technically, which is getting better and better. It only really works when you’ve got a really big dataset, a sufficient dataset to inform it and for it to learn from. And there’s a whole set of use cases which are really hard for it to handle. Over time it will get better and better at doing those, and the ease of sharing that thinking will get easier.
What Accenture is unearthing here is the fundamental paradox that becoming post-digital is the act of becoming so totally digitalised, not just in the process of having the ability to apply the technology, that the corporate mindset changes. In the same way that someone can be fluent in a second language, but only really becomes fluent once they have stopped mentally translating from their own language in real time, post digital is the point where a business stops thinking digital and just uses it.
For many this will take time, for some it will never happen, so the next few years may well see some significant changes amongst the current major players in all business sectors, especially the ones that feel the mud they are stuck in is just fine.